“Weird Al” Yankovic is known for his musical parodies. For almost 40 years the musician has been taking popular music and turning it into comedy. From Michael Jackson’s “Eat It” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Chamillionaire’s “Ridin Dirty.” Weird Al has become a household name.
He’s one of the most accomplished accordion players in the world, and if there was ever such a category called “Polka Revivalists,” he’d be the first and probably the only one on that list, certainly in the United States.
But did you know he also made a movie? And it…probably bankrupted the studio? That’s today, on Signal Cannon.
1989 was a tough summer to release a movie. You had the third Indiana Jones film, The second Lethal Weapon, the original Tim Burton Batman, the James Bond film License to Kill, Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, When Harry Met Sally, Weekend at Bernie’s, and Do The Right Thing.
For Orion Pictures, who were on the ropes financially after a run of unsuccessful films, a blockbuster hit was badly needed. And a little comedy starring “Weird Al” Yankovic, was doing really well at test screenings.
That movie, was UHF.
Written by Yankovic and his manager Jay Levey, who also directed, UHF came on the heels of Weird Al’s first two albums. Looking to expand the Weird Al brand of parody and comedy to film, the two shopped the idea to studios for almost three years before getting the ok from Orion. Yankovic says in an interview with the A.V. Club: I was told that UHF got the highest test screening numbers since the original RoboCop. I got pretty pumped up, thinking that I was going to be a movie star for a brief period of time. That was certainly the way Orion was positioning it. They said that I was going to be their new Woody Allen. They were looking forward to a long career with me.
Sadly, that didn’t become the case. In fact, the movie bombed pretty hard and effectively ended Weird Al’s film career before it even started. It would take a couple years for Weird Al to step back up on top with a new album and one of his most famous singles, “Smells Like Nirvana” in 1992. But the movie has since become a cult classic, and after going out of print in the 90’s VHS copies became hot commodities. It was then re-released on DVD in 2002 and became a top-10 selling home release at the time.
Alongside Yankovic, UHF stars an eclectic mix of performers, often cast to play against type. There’s pre-The Nanny Fran Drescher, and Michael Richards, the same year that Seinfeld was starting up, as well as Victoria Jackson, Emo Phillips and a gaggle of others.
Weird Al plays George, a slacker and daydreamer who’s overactive imagination keeps him and his friend Bob (played by David Bowe) from keeping a job for more than a few months. George’s Uncle wins the deed to a failing UHF TV station in a game of poker and agrees to let the out-of-work George run it. Letting his imagination run wild, Channel 62 creates all kinds of wacky original programming and becomes a local hit, challenging the rival bigwig VHF Channel 8, and its mean boss, R.J. Fletcher.
In this early scene, George, played by Yankovic shows up at the rival station to return some mail that was accidentally sent to him…and meets station manager R.J. Fletcher, who mistakes him for an employee.
The fun of UHF is really in the segments Yankovic and Levey came up with. Each plays like a trailer or first scene of each show. Often they’re spoofing cable access and low-budget local TV. There’s a game show where contestants play for their weight in fish called “Wheel of Fish” and a wilderness program that’s a man just showing off the animals in his apartment.
The shows they come up with run the gamut from really inspired, like a commercial parody about a department store that only sells spatulas, (Spatula City) to simple plays on words that they just ran with. Here’s Conan the Barbarian…only he works at a library.
There are also outright parodies of 80’s pop culture like Dire Strait’s song “Money for Nothing,” which features Weird Al’s actual band in a dream sequence brought on by watching The Beverley Hillbillies.
It’s available on the film’s companion album titled UHF: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff, a soundtrack of sorts but with other original songs and some skits from the film included. Interestingly, Dire Strait’s guitarist and lead singer Mark Knopfler insisted on playing guitar for Weird Al’s version of their song, which was unusual. As a result, both he and Guy Fletcher, Dire Strait’s keyboardist, appear on the track.
The movie’s a fun take on pop culture parody and feels a lot like a Weird Al album visualized, bizarre and typically squeaky clean, sometimes brilliant. Some of the jokes are dated, though, and at least one character in particular (played by Gedde Watanabe) reflects the caricature roles Asian actors were and likely still are relegated to in Hollywood.
Weird Al has expressed regret that some elements of the film were made in a time when certain jokes would fly, in reference to the character, though Watanabe himself has defended the caricature roles he’s become known for, including in UHF. Nevertheless, it’s something that today sticks out and should be acknowledged.
The story’s a pretty classic setup: the do-gooder must save the scrappy business from the evil corporation who wants to shut it down. Weird Al is in full 80’s mode here, mustachioed and bespectacled, riding the success of his Michael Jackson “Beat It” parody “Eat It” but before his string of other notable hits including a second Jackson parody of “Bad,” titled “Fat.”
Michael Richards basically steals the show as the station’s janitor Stanley. The movie’s worth a watch just for Richard’s physical comedy skills alone. Here he is after wandering onto the set and becoming the surprise star of his own kids show, Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse. George and Bob watch on TV at a bar and learn that there might be some luck for them around the corner.
Part of the deal with Orion was that the film had to be made for $5 million, so UHF was filmed in various places in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which provided significant cost savings for the production. Again, Yankovic: Tulsa offered a sort of unique situation. There was a large indoor mall that had recently gone out of business, so they had all these vacant storefronts. And the mall was right next to a hotel. So basically, it allowed us to have the whole cast and crew live in the hotel and work next door in the mall, and take it over and make sets out of all the unused storefronts.
But competing with some of the most successful movies of all time proved to be the killer for UHF. Plus its subject matter was arguably dated by the time of its release. UHF-band channels and the cheap programming they were associated with were on their way out by the late eighties, being supplanted by cable TV.
And it made only $6 million dollars against its budget of 5, no doubt contributing to the downfall of Orion Pictures, which would subsequently file for bankruptcy in 1991. It would become apparent how much was riding on UHF once the film failed at the box office. Yankovic says: We all expected the movie to do well. And then after opening weekend, when it didn’t perform up to anybody’s expectations, I was basically a ghost. People in the hallways at Orion didn’t want to establish eye contact with me. It was a pretty dramatic rise and fall. I won’t say that I spiraled into depression, but I was pretty bummed. It took me a while to kind of get out of my funk and to go on with my life, because I’d had a pretty large carrot dangled in front of me and then dropped into the toilet.
Of course, history was kind to Weird Al. He’s since gone on to become one of the most notable figures in pop culture and has outlasted many of the acts he’s parodied.
UHF is a weird, funny little movie, but right in line with the Weird Al canon and an interesting footnote in the varied career of one of the most successful and longest-lasting music artists of all time.
This is Signal Cannon.
Signal Cannon is produced by me, Billy Donahoe. It’s distributed by Play Too Much. Last week we talked about the inspiration for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the anti-abolitionist career Francis Scott Key had later in his life. Hear that episode and other great podcasts at PlayTooMuch.com.
The theme music for Signal Cannon was written by Eric Donahoe. Show art by Julianne Waber and Sara Waber.
The song “UHF” was written by Weird Al Yankovic and released on the album UHF – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff in 1989 on Rock ‘n Roll Records, a subsidiary of Scotti Brothers.
“Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies is a parody of Dire Strait’s “Money For Nothing.” It was also released on UHF – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff in 1989. Weird Al Yankovic, Mark Knopfler, Gordon Sumner, and Paul Henning, are credited as writers.